Lebanon, refugees and the UNHCR conundrum
A senior United Nations High Commissioner for Refugess (UNHCR) official said on Friday that the Lebanese government should move toward legalizing the status of non-Palestinian refugees in the country. It comes amid forced deportations from the small Arab country that violate humanitarian law, officials say.
According to UN statistics, there are some 50,000 Iraqis and an unknown number of Sudanese, Congolese and other African asylum seekers in Lebanon. Jean Paul Cavalieri, UNHCR’s deputy in Lebanon said the government must end its “arbitrary” detentions of refugees and stop deporting them back to their home nations.
“The source of the problem is essentially that there is no specific legislation in place concerning refugees, and existing laws on foreigners do not provide exceptions for refugees,” he told reporters at a conference to highlight the agency’s work in Lebanon.
Cavalieri added that the position of the Lebanese government was that it was “unable to host refugees permanently, especially as it is already under considerable strain hosting around 400,000 Palestinians,” Lebanon’s The Daily Star reported him saying.
In a bid to resolve the ongoing battle between aid groups and the government, the UNHCR is looking for resettlement options as a possible solution. Cavalieri said that “resettlement to third countries of voluntary repatriation” are options on the table and are being discussed.
Ahmed el-Jama’i, a Palestinian refugee who has lived his entire life in the Chatila camp in Beirut, said the problem has nothing to do with policy. The community leader argued that the Lebanese government “fails to see the humanity in the people it plays host to and this causes problems because many refugees, especially the Africans, are frustrating by the way they are treated.”
For its part, however, since 2003, UNHCR has resettled over 6,500 refugees from Lebanon in the US, Australia, Canada or Europe.
Lebanon has yet to sign a 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and has no laws on the books that deal specifically with their status. As a result, refugees and illegal migrants are often detained for months or years on end without charges. Refugees International said recently that this often results in the refugees forced deportation back to their country where they could face persecution.
“And we wonder why there are problems. If there isn’t a legal basis for treating refugees in this country, how are people supposed to demand their rights. In essence, it is like saying we have no rights,” the Palestinian told Bikya Masr in a phone conversation.
There have also been reports some refugees, particularly those from Iraq, are forcibly deported, The Daily Star in Lebanon reported.
“UNHCR’s position is grounded in international refugee law, which is clear: refugees and asylum-seekers should not be detained for illegal entry and should be protected from refoulement,” Cavalieri said, referring to the forced deportation of people who might deserve refugee status.
The UN official said his agency enjoyed a “constructive working relationship” with General Security, the security institution that presides over immigration and passport formalities in Lebanon.
While the UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Lebanese government in 2003, Cavalieri said the absence of laws for refugees and asylum seekers was hindering its work. The MoU “was not designed to cover such a large number of refugees and asylum-seekers … nor does it specifically address the non detention principle,” he said.
Republished With Permission From Bikya Masr